"I am one of thousands of women to have suffered – widows, orphans, victims of sexual abuse and rape". Photo: AFP
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“My son was killed... but it strengthened my commitment”

Despite tragedy, two Afghan women explain how they refuse to be cowed by militants from carrying out their work.

When unknown men abducted Parwin Wafa’s son in a bid to stop her teaching girls in Afghanistan, she refused to capitulate. They killed him. Defiant, she continues to promote female education, despite ongoing threats to her life and family.

Fellow Afghan Dr Pighla Dida was also undeterred when militant assailants warned her to close her small gynaecology practice. In retaliation, they maimed her 10-year-old son in a grenade attack. Later they murdered her brother too.

I met the pair at the end of June when they travelled to London on a simple mission to ask the British government for support in their work back home.

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Parwin Wafa is the headteacher of a girls’ school in Laghman province in eastern Afghanistan. She set up the area’s first female education facility in 1982 and has defied the Taliban and other conservative groups ever since in her calling to promote learning among girls.

When the Taliban closed her school, she resorted to secretly teaching pupils inside her home. Their threats escalated, until five years ago, they abducted her 18-year-old son Hamayood.

She explains in a flat, matter-of-fact tone: “For ten months the kidnappers kept my son alive. During that time we used to receive calls threatening us, but I didn’t stop my work.”

Was she ever tempted to capitulate? “No, these men were untrustworthy, I didn’t know they would return my son whatever I did.”

She pauses. “As a result my son was killed and his body was left on deserted land. Later the seasonal floods brought his body to an area where there were some nomadic people living and it was then we received his dead body.” His torso was pierced with 12 bullet wounds.

In the face of tragedy, how did she find the strength to carry on her work, even as renewed threats against other family members arrived?

“I had a commitment,” she says defiantly, but with a shaking voice. “I know Afghanistan is in desperate need of education. I thought, if I give up, will I give a good example to other women involved in the promotion of girls’ education? So that need for women’s education gave me strength.”

Softening, she adds: “Actually it strengthened the commitment that I had in my heart. My father, right from childhood, inspired me to become a teacher and spread the light of education among the girls.

“That is the only way we can bring about great prosperity in my country.” Discussing education, she becomes animated again.

With smiling eyes she explains the tactics she employs to convince parents in her rural, conservative society to send their girls to her school. Her first course of action is to write to the family, countering bogus claims that female education goes against Islam and including lines from the Koran that support her argument.

Failing that, she will travel to the parents’ house. How successful is her approach? She grins: “I haven’t lost a single girl yet”.

Wafa has a beneficent wiliness about her and her aura of easy good will explains why even the sternest conservative patriarchs relent to her.

She recounts how one Imam sent her a pair of shoes to thank her for providing him with water-tight arguments with which to defend his decision to educate his daughter.

Still, her door-to-door approach, and her irresistable personality, raised her profile in the area and gave rise to “anger among people who opposed girls’ education.”

That resentment increased when she stood as a parliamentary candidate in the country’s elections.

“That’s what led to the kidnapping of my son,” she explains, with a deep sigh.

She has not discovered the identity of his murderers, let alone attained justice. “I can’t confirm [who did it]. Afghanistan is full of all types of spoilers and it could be anybody. Talib is just another label – people simply say ‘Oh it’s the Taliban’ when anything bad happens.”

She is far from optimistic about the future. “We’re struggling,” she says, pointing out that education is a secondary concern behind security. “We cannot do anything to improve schools or teaching until the security of the country improves.”

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Dr Pighla Dida has a deep, sonorous voice and a dark sense of humour.

 “The obstructions to my work?”, she cackles bleakly, “Well, bombing, suicide bombs, threats... There are many problems.”

A gynaecologist from a district near Jalalabad, her work – controversial in her rural, traditional society – has also prompted tragedy. Like Wafa, however, she refuses to be cowed by the shattering assaults on her family and the continued threats.

In 2007, a grenade attack on the back garden of her home wounded her ten-year-old son, shredding his legs to ribbons.

Although she refused to give up her  work, her decision to carry on is clearly one that haunts her.

Holding my gaze, she says slowly: “When I see the sadness of my son sometimes – how sad he is, how he suffers – I wish I had quit at the time they warned me to quit.”

Shrugging, she adds: “I feel it is my moral duty to carry on my job. If I quit my profession, then which other doctor can I expect to help the needy people of Aghanistan?”

When victims of sexual abuse and rape used to come to Dida, she admits that at first she refused to help them. It took an incident horrific even by the brutal standards to which she is accustomed that prompted her to furtive action.

A local girl in her early teens who had fallen pregnant outside of marriage was killed by her family. First the parents poisoned their daughter, to weaken her, but also to prompt vomiting and diarrhea, which was designed to convince their neighbours that the death was a natural one. Then they smothered her in the night.

Dida says: “The girl had a large extended family. Her pregnancy was considered to be outside the bounds of honour, and they didn’t know what to do with her.”

She sighs. It is not just girls at risk either – an unplanned pregnancy, often the result of abuse or rape, can endanger every female member of the family.

“After I perform an ultrasound on a girl, often it's the mothers who beg me for help. If you don’t, they say, we’ll all be killed – me, my daughter, all the women in the family.”

Nowadays she offers secret abortions, although she does not advertise the service. “I only do it if they beg me and I can see there will be killing otherwise. I must help those kinds of girls.”

She was warned against her work from the start. “I received many threat letters claiming my work is un-Islamic and warning me to stop helping these people.”

Her refusal led to the attack on her son. She says: “It was evening time when my children were playing outside and a bomb was thrown into my house. There was a big explosion when I came out. My son was covered in blood.

“He was treated by Americans. He had injured legs and now he’s disabled. He’s suffered a lot.

“It took them 7 or 8 months to repair what muscle they could at the top of both legs and then they performed plastic surgery.”

The perpetrators remain unknown. “I can’t point to one particular group. There are many different such groups in Afghanistan... It is inhuman and an act of cruetly.”

Following further threats, Dida’s brother was killed in another targeted bomb attack near her home.

Like Wafa she is concerned about her country’s future as Western forces accelerate their departure.

“We are even more worried now because of the transition of the government that’s happening in Afghanistan. While I’m sitting here, my thoughts and concerns are on my kids and what’s going to happen to them.”

She is in London to ask for help. “I just want to ask your government to build a hospital for me where I can treat these women physically and mentally.”

She refuses to accept she is brave or of unnatural mettle. “I am one of thousands of women to have suffered – widows, orphans, victims of sexual abuse and rape, there is every kind of suffering and such poverty.”

She pauses, then smiles wryly, remembering something. “I met a woman here earlier who told me she doesn’t eat lamb – doesn’t eat meat at all. Well, I was quite surprised!” she exclaims. “In Afghanistan, people slaughter people, they shoot and kill children and don’t they don’t feel a thing. Are here, here people care about animals!”

“Look at the mercy your people have and look at what people do in Afghanistan.”

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

Police in Tahrir Square. Image: Getty.
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The murder of my friend Giulio Regeni is an attack on academic freedom

We are grieving – but above all, we are furious about the manner of his death.

The body of Giulio Regeni was discovered in a ditch in Cairo on February 2, showing evidence of torture, and a slow and horrific death. Giulio was studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge, and was carrying out research on the formation of independent trade unions in post-Mubarak Egypt. There is little doubt that his work would have been extremely important in his field, and he had a career ahead of him as an important scholar of the region.

Giulio, originally from Fiumicello in north-east Italy, had a strong international background and outlook. As a teenager, he won a scholarship that allowed him to spend two formative years studying at the United World College in New Mexico. He was especially passionate about Egypt. Before beginning his doctoral research, he spent time in Cairo working for the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). At the age of 28, he stood out with his big hopes and dreams, and he was committed to pursuing a career that would allow him to make an impact on the world, which is a poorer place for his passing.

Those of us who worked and spent time with him are grieving – but above all, we are furious about the manner of his death. While murder and torture are inherently of concern, Giulio’s case also has much broader implications for higher education in the UK and beyond.

Giuli Regeni. Image: provided by the author.

British universities have long fostered an outward-looking and international perspective. This has been evident in the consistent strength of area studies since the middle of the 20th century. The fact that academics from British universities have produced cutting-edge research on so many areas of the world is an important factor in the impact and esteem that the higher education system there enjoys.

In order to carry out this research, generations of scholars have carried out fieldwork in other countries, often with authoritarian political systems or social unrest that made them dangerous places in which to study. I carried out such research in Peru in the 1990s, working there while the country was ruled by the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori.

Alongside this research tradition, universities are becoming increasingly international in their outlook and make up. Large numbers of international students attend the classes, and their presence is crucial for making campuses more vibrant and diverse.

Giulio’s murder is a clear and direct challenge to this culture, and it demands a response. If our scholars – especially our social scientists – are to continue producing research with an international perspective, they will need to carry out international fieldwork. By its nature, this will sometimes involve work on challenging issues in volatile and unstable countries.

Universities clearly have a duty of care to their students and staff. This is generally exercised through ethics committees, whose work means that much greater care is taken than in the past to ensure that risks are managed appropriately. However, there is the danger that overly zealous risk management could affect researchers’ ability to carry out their work, making some important and high-impact research simply impossible.

Time for action

We cannot protect against all risks, but no scholar should face the risk of extrajudicial violence from the authorities. If universities are to remain internationally focused and outward-looking, we must exercise our duty of care towards our students and colleagues when they are working in other countries.

But there are limits to what academic institutions can do on their own. It is vital that governments raise cases such as Giulio’s, and push strongly for full investigations and for those responsible to be held to account.

The Italian and Egyptian authorities have announced a joint investigation into what happened to Giulio, but the British government also has a responsibility to make representations to this effect. That would send the message that any abuse by authorities of students and researchers from British universities will not be tolerated.

A petition will be circulated to this effect, and Giulio’s friends and colleagues will be campaigning on the issue in the days and weeks ahead.

Giulio Regeni’s murder is a direct challenge to the academic freedom that is a pillar of our higher education system. He is only one of many scholars who have been arbitrarily detained, and often abused, in Egypt. As a scholarly community and as a society, we have a duty to strike to protect them and their colleagues who study in dangerous places the world over.

 

Neil Pyper is an Associate Head of School at Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.